Plain English is coming soon

Have you ever wished it was easy to understand a tax form or social welfare rules? Well, you may soon get your wish.

Government departments will have to write in plain English (or Irish) after the Plain Language Bill 2019 is passed. This means that all social welfare information, all tax forms, and all public sector websites, letters and reports will have to be easy to understand – and use.

Here’s an example of public sector gobbledygook, which will be banned in the future:

“A good example of how the Department has already altered its approach to acting on frontline intelligence is by making staff feedback loops an integral part of the design process, which uses an iterative and participative process to bring frontline experience to the heart of design activity.”

What on earth does this mean? Most of us would have to read this gobbledygook several times to work out the message. But how many readers would care enough to struggle through such a mess of jargon, buzz words and official-ese? One way to help people to read and understand your written communications is to use plain English.

What is plain English?

A document is in plain English if its intended readers can easily read, understand and use the information.

People like plain English
Research shows that people are more likely to read information that is written and displayed in plain English – because they find it faster to read and easier to deal with. It also shows that people are more likely to trust an organisation that communicates clearly and simply.

Recent research in Ireland found:

  • 95% of adults are in favour of organisations providing information in plain English
  • 48% of people tend to find official documentation difficult to understand

New legislation on plain language

Plain English will become compulsory in the public sector when new legislation is passed later this year. The Plain Language Bill 2019 aims to ensure all written communications from the public sector use plain language.  It will cover all new documents – from forms and emails to websites and reports – and also require that any updated materials are re-written in plain language.

Why use plain English?

Everyone benefits from plain English. The new legislation will help the 18% of people in Ireland with literacy issues to access services – and the growing numbers of people who don’t have English as their first language.  In addition, research shows that higher educated people prefer plain English – possibly because it’s quicker to scan and read.

It helps people to make better decisions

Because people can understand plain English the first time they read it, it saves them time – and helps them to make better informed decisions (and they will make fewer mistakes when dealing with the information).

This saves organisations time and money because staff will receive fewer calls to the help desk, have to deal with fewer incorrect forms, get a better response to letters and emails, and so on.

The UK government saved about £9 million by rewriting forms
During a programme in the 1980s to improve communications, the Civil Service re-wrote over 21,000 forms. Examples of savings include:

  • A Customs and Excise form where the error rate was reduced from 55% to 3% – saving £33,000 a year in staff time
  • A Department of the Environment form on ‘right to buy’ had an error rate of 60%. The plain English version had an error rate of under 5%

The Royal Mail in the UK saved £500,000 in 9 months
An unclear ‘Redirection of mail’ form had an error rate of 87% and cost the Royal Mail over £10,000 a week in dealing with complaints and reprocessing incorrect forms. After it was rewritten, the error rate dropped significantly – and the Royal Mail saved a huge amount of staff time.

Source for case studies: Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please – The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government and Law by Joseph Kimble (Carolina Academic Press)